WASHINGTON – Allies of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. have launched an ambitious campaign to raise millions of dollars from businesses and individuals by offering special ‘VIP participation’ in redesigned inaugural festivities that will be largely virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Far fewer tickets than usual are being distributed for people to attend the swearing-in ceremony outside the Capitol on January 20, which is organized and funded by the government.
To create a festive air, Mr Biden’s inaugural committee said it was raising private funds to fund virtual events that would echo this year’s Democratic convention, which featured a roll call from 50 states across the country. country. There are also plans for a “virtual concert” with major artists whose names have yet to be released – and possibly for an in-person event later in the year.
The contrast between the constraints of organizing inaugural festivities in the midst of a public health crisis and fundraising as usual underscores that donations for an inauguration are not just about securing good seats for the swearing-in. or tickets for the brightest black tie. balls. They are also a way for businesses and well-heeled individuals to curry favor with a new administration, a reality that prompted liberal groups on Wednesday to ask Mr Biden’s inaugural committee to forgo corporate donations. .
President Trump’s inauguration almost four years ago has taken the practice to a new level. It has become something of an access traffic bazaar, and aspects of its record fundraising and spending have been investigated.
Mr. Biden’s inaugural committee is made up of promising companies donating up to $ 1 million and individuals contributing $ 500,000 – the largest amounts the committee said it accepts – a form of “VIP participation. »At the virtual concert.
This special access is part of the perks detailed on a one-page committee sponsorship menu that circulated among donors on Wednesday. Benefits include ‘event sponsorship opportunities’, as well as access to virtual briefings with inaugural committee and campaign leaders, and invitations to virtual events with Mr. Biden and Jill Biden , the future first lady, and the vice president elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff.
Major donors will also receive an appropriate memento for the coronavirus era – ‘signed virtual photos’ with the President-elect and the First Lady, as well as Ms Harris and her husband, replacing traditional online photo opportunities in person for donors usually pay generously at fundraisers and other political events.
Future presidents have long raised private funds to organize and pay for the inaugural festivities beyond the swearing-in ceremony, which is hosted by the Congressional Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies and funded by taxpayer dollars.
Major donors usually have intimate in-person access to parties and dinners to celebrate with members of a new president’s campaign and administration.
Among the corporate giants who have indicated they are ready to donate despite the lack of in-person events are Boeing, the aerospace manufacturer and military contractor. The company is contributing $ 1 million towards Mr. Biden’s inauguration, an amount it says is in line with its past contributions to the inaugural committees. Representatives from Bank of America and Ford Motor Company also said their companies intended to donate.
“We have supported the inauguration events of many administrations on a non-partisan basis because we see it as part of our civic engagement for an important national event,” said Bill Halldin, a spokesperson for Bank of America, in a press release. “The private sector has traditionally done this and we plan to provide support for ceremonies in January, if appropriate, given the health crisis and other factors that could have an impact.”
A number of companies that have been major donors in previous presidential inaugurations – such as Coca-Cola, Google and United Parcel Service – said this week they still had not decided how much, or if, to give, well. that Google noted that it had provided “online security protections for free” to the inaugural committee.
“As you know, it’s a very different year and as such we haven’t made a decision yet,” Coca-Cola spokesperson Ann Moore said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for investment bank JPMorgan Chase, which has donated at past openings, said that instead of donating to Mr Biden’s committee, she would donate to food banks in Washington and the hometowns of Mr. Biden (Wilmington, Del.) and Ms. Harris (Oakland, Calif.) “to help those affected by the pandemic”.
The presidential transition
A spokesperson for the inauguration did not say how much had already been raised, or what the purpose of the fundraiser was.
Funds raised for inaugurations cannot be transferred to federal campaigns or party committees. Former inaugural committees donated unspent funds to charities, including those engaged in disaster relief, as well as groups involved in the decoration and maintenance of the White House and the vice-president’s residence.
Mr. Biden’s inaugural committee effort to raise funds from corporate donors has aroused perplexity and objections from liberal activists, who have expressed concern over what they see as the comfort of Team Biden with corporate interests.
A coalition of around 50 liberal groups issued a letter to the inaugural committee on Wednesday, urging it to forgo corporate donations to prevent them from “ exerting undue influence ”, and questioning the need for such donations, given the likelihood that Mr. Biden’s inauguration will cost less than previous inaugurations.
“The willingness to raise so much money without a clear use is confusing, and the appearance of doing so is disconcerting,” said the letter, which was organized by Demand Progress, a group that also urged Mr. Biden to not to hire. business executives and consultants or lobbyists.
Federal law does not require disclosure of donations to inaugural committees until 90 days after the event, and limited disclosures about spending are only required months after that. But Biden’s inaugural committee said it intended to release the names of at least its biggest donors by January 20.
There is no legal limit on the size of donations that inaugural committees can accept, and there are few restrictions on who can give.
Mr Biden’s inaugural committee announced last month that he would voluntarily renounce donations from fossil fuel companies, registered lobbyists and foreign agents, in addition to limiting corporate donations to $ 1 million and donations individuals at $ 500,000.
These restrictions are less stringent than those adopted by former President Barack Obama for his inauguration in 2009. His inaugural committee refused corporate donations and said it limited individual donations to $ 50,000, although it did relaxed the rules for his second nomination in 2013.
While Mr. Trump’s team has said they will not accept contributions from lobbyists for his nomination in 2017, his fundraising has otherwise been virtually unrestricted, resulting in a record transport of 107 million. dollars.
The Biden team has so far released some details regarding the groundbreaking plans, aside from a statement on Tuesday urging people not to travel to Washington to attend the event given the pandemic and noting that “l ‘footprint of the ceremony will be extremely limited’.
To express how unusual the event will be, Biden’s inaugural committee appointed Dr David Kessler, former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, as an advisor to help make decisions about the types of events that he can organize.
“We call on Americans to participate in inaugural events from their homes to protect themselves, their families, friends and communities,” Dr. Kessler said in a statement.
In a typical inauguration year, a congressional committee that holds the swearing-in ceremony typically distributes 200,000 tickets to lawmakers for platform seats, elevators, and seats near the western front of the Capitol, which are then distributed to voters and friends who wish. participate.
But this year, the committee announced that it would only give out two tickets to the outdoor festivities to each of the 535 members of Congress, for them and a guest to attend.
Beyond that event, much of it was at Biden’s inauguration committee, where officials have said in recent days that they are still working to “reimagine” and “reinvent” the inauguration.
There will still be some sort of inaugural parade, but it will be drastically reduced and most likely will feature videos or live shots of bands performing across the country.
This week’s inaugural committee revealed that it had retained the services of Ricky Kirshner, a New York-based entertainment industry and television events producer. Her past experience includes this year’s Super Bowl halftime show that starred Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, as well as past Tony Awards and Kennedy Center Honors events, and the largely virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, among many. other events.
Major donors will also receive “VIP tickets” for some sort of future event to celebrate the start of the new administration in person, according to the on-page donor benefits menu.
But given the lingering uncertainty associated with the pandemic, this event is listed as a “date to be determined”.
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.